A rich assortment of fraught relationships bolsters this family story and its characters.

THE CUFFLINK

A debut multigenerational novel focuses on a 20th-century Jewish American family.

When the book introduces Frederick Green, he is a young boy listening to his siblings practice their instruments. The Greens are a Jewish family living in Philadelphia in the 1930s. They may not be rich, but thanks to Fred’s father, a Latvian immigrant who sells insurance, they make do. Unfortunately, the family is struck by tragedy when Fred’s brother, Will, a violin virtuoso, dies at a young age. The calamity sends Fred’s sister, Lorraine, down a path that will end in her own early death. These events leave Fred as the sole Green child to make it in the world. But make it he does. Fred wins a college scholarship, becomes an ace boxer as an undergraduate, and eventually earns a law degree. He then opens his own law firm, marries into a wealthy family, and soon he and his wife have a child. Fred must painstakingly build his practice, yet all seems to be going well. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 has Fred attempting to join the military, but, due to his age and status as a family man, he must settle for helping crack enemy codes as a civilian. Things take a dismal turn when Fred becomes caught up in a shady business deal run by his father-in-law. The whole affair, which includes accusations of arson, will cost Fred everything. With time and determination, however, he rebuilds and remarries. He even passes along his drive to a new daughter named Samantha, who will one day become an attorney just like her dad. Bolch’s ambitious story tends to focus on relationships, and they are mostly unhappy ones. From Fred’s sister’s abysmal marriage to a local boor to Samantha’s equally dreadful union with an overachiever, the partnerships are hardly glamorous. But it is through these difficult pairings that the tale generates its best material. Just as it seems someone has found the right person, it becomes very clear that is not the case. Samantha, for instance, becomes engaged to a medical student at Columbia. Watching such a seemingly excellent pairing fizzle gives the book the kind of palpable conflict that remains lacking in other areas. A number of scenes can be dull, including Fred’s law school graduation, which is no more thrilling that it sounds. Dialogue can often be dry, as when a suitor explains to Samantha rather flatly: “I’ll pick you up at six so that we can have dinner before the show.” Nevertheless, certain details give the saga color. Fred’s adventures take him to a once-famous resort in upstate New York while Samantha eventually finds herself in an indisputably gloomy Scranton, Pennsylvania. Still, more information might have painted a more robust picture. If the Greens reflect on the myriad changes in Pennsylvania and the country over the years, such musings are not noted.

A rich assortment of fraught relationships bolsters this family story and its characters.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5439-4210-1

Page Count: 480

Publisher: BookBaby

Review Posted Online: April 24, 2019

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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